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Wildfire Witch Hunt Will Likely Miss The Real Culprits

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Wildfire Witch Hunt Will Likely Miss The Real Culprits

Paige Column In Insight Magazine

A witch-hunt is under way in Washington state for the negligent weenie roasters believed responsible for sparking a modest forest fire that suddenly turned deadly in early July. It killed four firefighters (two of them female and still in their teens) and nearly incinerated others. But federal officials continue to evade accountability for misguided policies and practices that have turned Western forests into potential towering infernos.The Hooveresque pursuit of the camper culprits in the Okanogan National Forest stands in marked contrast to the aftermath of New Mexico's Cerro Grand fire. That prescribed burn set by National Park Service personnel last year cost no lives but broke from its perimeter and nearly torched the nation's premier national laboratory, at Los Alamos, before leaving hundreds in the town homeless. For that fiasco the Park Service just recently took the blame (after a yearlong investigation), making the usual empty gesture of accepting full responsibility while holding no one in particular accountable.The "Thirty Mile Fire," in which the Washington state firefighters perished, occurred in an area designated by the U.S. Forest Service as a "Resource Natural Area." It is a de facto wilderness in which aggressive forest-management techniques that might have reduced the threat of wildfire - including timber cutting - were rejected in favor of the Forest Service's preferred methodology, which best can be described as forest nonmanagement.Why young, inexperienced firefighters were caught unaware by the changing weather conditions that sparked the conflagration is something far worthier of investigation than whose toasted marshmallow initiated it. The 21-member fire crew overwhelmed in Washington state had eight rookies, or about twice the number experts believe is prudent. Three of the four who perished were 21 years of age or younger; the eldest killed was a grizzled veteran, age 30. Of the dead, Devin Weaver, 21, reportedly had about 40 hours of training before being assigned to the fire line. "What kind of idiot would send a kid with no experience into a situation like that?" Weaver's father recently asked.The same question can be posed regarding other federal fire-fighting practices. That the government somehow has lost its sense of priorities is illustrated by the following fact: Helicopters fighting some wildfires are sometimes prevented from scooping water from the nearest available river because endangered species such as bull trout might be harmed or killed as a result.The Forest Service's "minimum-impact [fire] suppression techniques" also dictate that fire lines in wilderness areas be cut narrower than normal, increasing the chance that firebreaks get breached, and that chemical fire retardants not be used in most circumstances, including within 300 feet of a stream or body of water. In certain wilderness areas the cutting of trees to clear a landing pad for rescue helicopters cannot go forward without special authorization.There is a final point worth making: The fact that the area had established roads, which the ill-fated crew used to flee from the fire and on which some of its members, when cornered, reportedly made their stand, may have saved lives that otherwise might have been lost. This is something to ponder as we continue to weigh the Clinton-era "wisdom" of managing one-third of all federal forests as "roadless" wilderness.